Administration’s response to tragedy met with criticism

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Administration’s response to tragedy met with criticism

Max Karp and Ellida Parker

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Principal Kimberly Martin led an open meeting with students in the library last Friday during STEP to address student concerns surrounding the administration’s response to the murder of Wilson sophomore Breon Austin. The meeting developed into a tense dialogue between students who felt that the school had failed to support a grieving student body, and administrators who were caught between honoring Breon publicly and respecting his family’s wish for privacy.

Breon was shot and killed in his home by a person wearing a mask on April 19. An active police investigation into Breon’s murder was still underway when this issue of The Beacon was sent to print on Tuesday, April 30.

The Student Government Association organized Friday’s meeting amidst unsubstantiated allegations that Martin had referred to Breon’s murder as, “Just another death.” Students circulated the allegations on social media and by the day of the meeting, a national petition calling for her resignation had gained 1,350 signatures.

Martin denied these allegations at the beginning of the meeting, claiming that she said “nothing along the lines of that.”

In the 45 minutes that followed, more questions emerged. Why hadn’t there been a more commemorative recognition of his life at school? Why hadn’t the school made sure that grieving students knew where to find emotional support? Why was Earth, Wind, and Fire playing on speakers in the atrium on Monday, just three days after Breon was killed?

Martin clarified in the meeting that her first priority in the days following Breon’s death was to respect his family and work in cooperation with them. According to Martin, Breon’s mother specifically requested that the school refrain from organizing an assembly or event in honor of Breon. “The most important thing is to be respectful to the family, and to a mom who just lost her child. She is dealing with a tremendous amount of grief and anxiety. And there’s a active police investigation going on, and a lot going on you don’t know about,” said Martin to students at the meeting.

What became overwhelmingly clear at the meeting was that there had been a problem of communication, or lack thereof, between students and staff throughout the week.

“If you knew he passed away on Friday, then you knew students were gonna come in here on Monday grieving, that they were gonna be sad inside this building because just to see him in these halls brightened their day. If you needed time to figure out the next move with the family, you should have told us that. You should have let students know that you needed time to figure out how you were gonna go about this,” said one student, addressing Martin.

The main school-wide acknowledgement of Breon’s death was a minute-long moment of silence on Monday’s morning announcements. Students in the meeting said that they hadn’t heard the moment of silence, either because their class was too loud during the announcements or because the intercom in their classroom was broken. “I didn’t hear it, and if I didn’t hear it that means that the 30 other kids in my class didn’t hear it either,” a student remarked.

Another concern voiced by students at the meeting was that adults in the building had failed to communicate with students about where they could seek emotional support.

On Monday of last week, mental health clinicians from the trained DCPS Crisis Team came to Wilson to act as a support system for grieving students. The counselors are deployed on a week-by-week basis when a crisis comes up at a DCPS school. The team left the school after that first Monday, but they were a “phone call away” throughout the remainder of the week, according to social workers. The team returned to Wilson on the Monday after the meeting.

In her weekly email to community members on the Sunday after Breon’s death, Martin relayed the news of Breon’s death and informed parents that grief counseling would be available throughout the week. The following morning, Martin emailed teachers a “script” to read to their classes, which detailed the support available to students. “Our guidance counselors, social workers, and members of the Central Crisis Intervention Team will be available in the Guidance Conference Room or the Main Office Conference Room for anyone who wants to talk about his or her feelings. Students who feel they need to leave class at any time throughout the day to see a Social Worker should let their teachers know, and they will receive a pass,” the script read.

However, students at the meeting said they were unaware that the grief counselors had ever been at the school. In the email containing the script, Martin described the script as “support” for teachers talking about Breon’s death, adding that it was “not mandatory,” for teachers to discuss his death in class. Many teachers did not read the script in their classes, meaning that many students were left unaware of the support available to them, and unaware that they had the option to leave class to see social workers at any point during the day.

Social worker Perrette Arrington explained that the social workers and the DCPS Crisis Team visited Breon’s classes throughout the day on the Monday after his death, and said they continued to follow up with students throughout the week. “We were definitely checking in with students and following up with them. Our DCPS social workers that were here had a list of students who had spoken with grief counselors on Monday, and we were making sure that we were diligently following up with all those students through today,” said Arrington.

To this, students at the meeting pointed out that it was a mistake for the Crisis Team to assume that Breon’s only friends were in his classes. “He was a part of this whole school, not just his classes. The fact that not everybody is getting this information is just weird. It just feels like we’re being snuffed,” one student commented.

Sophomore Danny Page, who grew up playing basketball with Breon, emphasized that the social workers had been a tremendous source of support for him in the days after Breon’s death. “I’ve been going to them a lot, and they’ve been extremely helpful,” said Page.

Social workers at the meeting said that students’ requests for more support were being “well-received.” On the Monday after the meeting, the DCPS crisis team visited English classes to offer their support to students.

“I feel like the biggest thing we got out of this meeting is that there’s a problem with communication with the kids, the students, the administrators, and parents,” a student commented as the meeting concluded.

In her weekly email sent to community members on the Sunday after the meeting, Martin said that she is continuing to communicate with Breon’s family, and that they have requested the school’s help in fundraising for the cost of the services. A collection box will be in the main office. The family has also expressed interest in creating a scholarship in Breon’s name.